Relationships

How to Stop Overthinking

What to do when the ghosts of partners past are haunting your waking thoughts.

A man holding a photograph and looking sad
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Suphaporn/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Eleven years ago, Emilia had the best night of her life. She was 19 years old and visiting her cousin in Mexico during college break when she met a man named Ivan. Emilia and Ivan fell in love, and eventually Emilia moved from New York to Mexico. But then things fell apart. Today, Emilia is newly and happily married, but memories of her old flame in Mexico still haunt her, and she’s desperate for a way to let the past go . On a recent episode of How To!, psychologist Ethan Kross, author of Chatter: The Voice In Our Head, Why It Matters, and How To Harness It, helped Emilia quiet the chatter in her head. While we can’t control those thoughts, Ethan says we can control how we react to them. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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David Epstein: Emilia, can you tell us about your relationship with Ivan? It sounds like you got swept off your feet.

Emilia: Right away when I met him, I was like wow. He was gorgeous—perfect brown skin, tight black curls. He was very suave, what you would think of as a suave Mexican-like stallion. And he was very well-off and had all the friends. I ended up creating a study abroad program in Mexico so that I could be closer to Ivan. I was there for 6 months, and when I graduated I said, “I’ll come down there and we’ll just try it out.” I went down there with the expectation that I would live there permanently. We ended up adopting a dog and at the end of 9 months, the relationship started to fizzle. We realized we were just different people. I was fresh out of college and really motivated to work professionally but there wasn’t anything for me there.

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David: What’s your last memory of Ivan?

Emilia: My last memory is us in this restaurant. He was like, “You know, maybe you’ll come back one day.” And I said, “I don’t know, maybe.” And that was it. That was the last dinner we ever had.

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I’ve been living with these memories in my head. I describe it as a thought tape or my resident ghost—it’s this repeating memory that doesn’t really go away. What is that person doing today? Are they at the office? I can picture exactly what he would be wearing and where he would be working. I’m struggling with the value of these thoughts, and if they actually have negative value because they’re distracting. You know, I bought a house 2 years ago. I am married to my amazing husband. We’re planning a family. Like does everybody experience this or is there a point where I can let thoughts just go?

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Ethan Kross: So when these thoughts happen, do you try to remind yourself of how well life is going for you right now?

Emilia: I do, but it seems like I can’t control the thoughts.

Ethan: That’s understandable. I think the first thing is don’t make it so hard on yourself. Having these negative memories bubbling up is a very common experience. We’re constantly searching to come up with stories to explain our lives and when we have a story to make sense of our experiences, we start thinking about them a lot less. But if we don’t have a really good story or explanation to account for what we’ve gone through, our mind keeps on trying to get us to that place and it will, as a result, often bring those experiences to mind. One question I would ask—do you feel like you have a story that explains what you went through and gives it an ending?

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Emilia: That’s really interesting. I feel like it’s exactly what’s happening to me. I don’t have a clear ending to that story even though it’s been over 10 years. That’s probably the reason why these little moments keep floating to the top of my head, because I never really had that closure.

Ethan: Have you ever tried journaling about your experience? There’s one tool called expressive writing. This has been shown over time to make people feel better because it creates a narrative to explain what you’ve gone through, what you’re feeling. Those stories can be really, really powerful for just giving us some closure around difficulties. So write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about what happened to you. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling, but write continuously for 15 to 20 minutes about this event for anywhere from 2 to 3 days. The process of writing gives it a structure: You start off at the beginning, you get to the middle, and then you have the wonderful fairy tale ending. You have ended up in this wonderful place. And so the question is, can you tell that story to yourself and believe it?

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David: Have you talked with your husband about the proverbial ghost in the room? 

Emilia: I haven’t.

David: There’s still something I’m trying to get my head around, which is that it sounds like you have some good memories. Why are you trying to get rid of them? 

Emilia: It’s the fact that I’m thinking about another man when I’m married and happy. It makes me feel guilty. It’s this feeling sort of like he got away, but it’s more like the life that got away. I think it was less about him and more about my time in Mexico was the most amazing experience that I’ll never get again, so I’m living with these images of wonderful things that I will never have again, and it just kind of makes me sad.

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Ethan: I would love for you not to feel bad about those feelings and to realize that they happen to everyone. Thoughts pop up into our heads that we might not want to think from time to time. That’s totally OK. There’s nothing wrong with it. That’s just the human mind. It’s how you act on those thoughts and what you do. If you’re setting your goal to never ever experience a thought about something that you don’t want to, it’s just setting you up to have a really difficult challenge to meet. One metaphor that’s often used is to imagine your mind is like a school bus. Passengers come on and get off all the time. Some of those passengers are well-behaved and others aren’t. There are lots of ways that you can interact with those passengers that get on the bus, but you can’t necessarily control who comes on. Just having that awareness can be helpful.

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Also, I know you mentioned that you haven’t spoken about this with your husband for understandable reasons, but is there anyone that you’ve talked to about it?

Emilia: I vented to my mother and my sister. They’re very understanding, but I wouldn’t say that they’re providing me with a new narrative. They’re more listening to me and agreeing.

Ethan: It seems to me these conversations may have been really good at helping satisfy what we would call your emotional needs, which are the needs to be validated and be heard, but not necessarily helpful in helping you satisfy your cognitive needs, which is this need for closure and reframing. There are a lot of people in my life who I’m exceptionally close to, but I don’t talk to them about chatter because I know it doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t make it feel better. In fact, it just keeps those thoughts active.

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Emilia: Exactly. When I talk about these thoughts, then I’m all riled up.

Ethan: There’s a technical word for this—co-rumination. It’s where you feel really connected to the person you’re talking to—which feels good in the moment—but when you end the conversation you’re all riled up. You’re not feeling better. I remember one time I was really upset about something and a friend said, “Can you just ride that out?” Basically what they were saying to me was, emotions like fade over time so ride it out. Knowing the friend you could turn to that will give you that nudge to shift how you’re thinking about things can be really helpful.

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It’s much easier for people to give advice to other people than it is to follow that advice ourselves. And so another thing you might think about is when you find yourself ruminating about this experience, think about what advice you would give your best friend if they were going through this? And then give yourself that advice. You can actually use language to help you think about yourself like you were a friend. We call this distanced self-talk, and it involves trying to coach yourself through a problem to find a solution by using your own name. Jennifer Lawrence, the actress, during a very stressful interview with The New York Times, stopped in the middle and said to herself, “OK, Jennifer, get it all together. This isn’t therapy.”

Emilia: Honestly this conversation has put a new perspective on everything. It’s made me feel so much better about my relationship with my thoughts. Even though I know I’m not the only one [overthinking], sometimes I feel like [I am]. But you’re telling me that it’s normal.

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To hear more of Ethan’s tips to stop overthinking, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts. 

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